Expedition to Galapagos

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Journal - Part One Menu Journal - Part Two Menu

Part One - Week One

Traveling to the Galapagos
9 June National Airport, Washington, DC

And so it begins! I have thought about this expedition every day for over a year, and in the past couple of months it has totally consumed me. The preparation, particularly trying to complete so many ongoing research projects at the museum, but also getting organized for the scientific part of the journey, has been arduous. And preparing personally wasn't so easy either. Why did they pick me? My "audience" typically consists of preserved fish that I peer at through the eye pieces of a microscope, not millions of people peering at me through 3-D headsets! Nevertheless, as a scientist, I am excited about making this a productive trip, and I am eagerly anticipating the deep-water work and the challenges of diving in Galápagos. This is not to say that I'm fearless of these things, only that the excitement of the challenge and the potential for both scientific and personal discovery should allow me to keep the fear in perspective. I forgot to add "sharks" to the list above. I've never been diving in really "sharky" waters, and I admit to some trepidation here. I've often listened to scuba divers talk about seeing sharks and trying to get as close to them as possible, and wondered "why do they do this?" We shall see...

And we're off! I'm on the way to Miami, where I'll meet underwater cinematographer Al Giddings and his underwater film crew. We will all fly together to Quito, Ecuador, this evening, and then go on to the Galapagos tomorrow morning.

10 June Quito, Ecuador

Arrived here last night around 10 PM. Met Giddings crew in Miami. Now know John Knebel (LA, Mandalay), Jon Dodson (Montana, veteran assistant to Al), Randy Wimberg (Montana, veteran assistant to Al), Billy Barber (LA, first-time assistant to Al), Steve King (San Francisco, first-time assistant to Al), Rod Farb (NC, rebreather technician), Stuart MacFarlane (Toronto, IMAX), Noel Archambault (Vancouver, IMAX), Doug Lavender (Vancouver, IMAX), Scott Shaver (Toronto, lighting), and of course Al, who I’d met once before when he was in town to work with co-producer Dave Clark. Took two hours at the airport last night to get all the gear squared away, so we arrived at the Hotel Alameda around 12:30 a.m. I was extremely wound up despite the long day of traveling (this expedition has finally begun!) and had a difficult time sleeping.

Quito is quite scenic, with mountain ranges on either side. Crisp air, high altitude (ca. 9000 ft.). I felt the lack of oxygen a little this morning -- had a slight headache -- but no big deal. We're now on San airline getting ready to fly to San Cristobal, with a brief stopover in Guayaquil on the coast. We'll load all of the gear onto the SEWARD JOHNSON (SJ herein) in San Cristobal and then cruise to Baltra to pick up Dave Clark and chief scientist for the expedition John McCosker. Our naturalist guide, Juan Carlos Naranjo, was supposed to be on this flight with us, but no one can find him. World Cup Soccer is on TV today, so rumor has it he may be hiding out and enjoying the competition...!

We're in the air, and lucky that the skies were clear here last night and today. With the city and airport nestled between Andean mountain ranges, it is frequently too cloudy or foggy to land here. Apparently, the night before we arrived, a plane coming to Quito from Panama had to return to Panama because of poor visibility in Quito. I was warned about this...

Billy (Barber), Michael Lang (Smithsonian Science Diving Safety Officer) and I spent some time in the Quito airport going through Billy’s book about the Galapagos Islands. He’s very interested in the biology of the islands. Said he majored in biochemistry, but I think there's a bit of naturalist in there. He’s definitely interested in wildlife films, which is of course what led him to be on this expedition. Billy's family is from Norfolk, VA, which instantly explains (in my southern mind) why he’s so nice. Anyway, we read about fur sea lions (no true fur SEALS here, although that’s what they call the fur sea lions), vampire finches that suck blood from the base of wing feathers of masked boobies(!), iguanas, tortoises, herons, egrets, rats, bats, etc. As we approach the Galapagos, I feel that I know so much more about the animals here than Darwin did when he arrived; yet, until I see them and experience them in their habitats, I guess I don't really know them at all. At least I know there’s a lot to see... For Darwin, the diversity of odd creatures on the islands must have come as a huge surprise.

On Board the Seward Johnson
11 June Academy Bay, Santa Cruz

A dark beginning. Within hours of our being on the waters of the Galápagos, the ocean claimed the lives of four elderly tourists. The boat they and about 15 others were on tipped over in rough seas, apparently a rare thing in these typically calm Galápagos waters. All passengers except four were recovered by another tourist vessel, the ISABELLA II. We were steaming from San Cristobal to Baltra to meet Clark and McCosker when we received the distress call. Spent all evening and night searching for survivors. Sent four divers (Al, Michael, Randy, and Ben from the ship) out in the rough seas in a zodiac to try to locate the hull to see if anybody was trapped beneath it. No luck, and the whole operation of deploying and retrieving the zodiac in rough seas was dangerous. About 11:45 p.m., just after I'd gone to bed, our crew spotted and retrieved the body of one passenger. The search continued throughout the night with no further success. At 6:30 A.M., we steamed into Academy Bay. Moods on the ship are grave.

Spent the morning exploring the ship and helping Giddings' crew unpack boxes. The SJ is about 200 ft. in length, easily the largest research vessel I've been on. The R/V DOLPHIN in South Carolina was about 100 ft., and I was once on the NOAA R/V CAPE HATTERAS, which must be close to 150 ft. now that they split it in half and added a new section -- I had no idea they could do this to a large ship! Anyway, the SJ is really nice, although the deck space is largely taken up by the sub and, right now, all of the boxes brought on board for this expedition. My first glimpse of the ship was from a small rock dock at San Cristobal. She looked so impressive, and I stared at her and wondered what it was going to be like to live on this floating "home" for nearly two months! The ship has 4 main levels: from the top, the bridge (or pilot house); the 0-1 deck with living quarters for key people (Captain Vince Seiler, First Mate Rob Shakespeare, Chief Engineer John Terry, and on this trip Dave Clark and Al Giddings) and also some of the best deck space for viewing the ocean; the main deck, which includes the galley, entertainment room, computer room, electrical room, workshop, labs, aquarium room, etc., plus a lot of deck space outside on the stern (the sub sits on this deck); and finally the lower deck, which includes living quarters for everyone else, the engine room, an engineer office, and a weight room, which also includes a stationary bike (thank goodness -- but I'm still going to miss running on this trip). In addition to all of the boxes of camera gear, this ship is carrying three small boats – a "landing craft" for deploying the 3-D camera, a small whaler, and a zodiac that Al bought for use on the trip.

I walked around and around the sub today – already feeling a few butterflies. The "bubble" (acrylic sphere) in front reminds me of the front of a helicopter, and the panel of instruments and switches looks as complicated as that of a jumbo jet. I had a dream (which seems more like a nightmare now that I’ve seen all of those switches!) before I came on this trip that I was in the sub at 3000 ft., and something happened to the pilot, and I had to take over. I was receiving instructions from the ship on how to safely surface the sub – kind of like a passenger in a plane who has to land the aircraft with instructions from the ground when the pilot is incapacitated. Mostly I’m excited about getting in the sub. Perhaps if I weren’t a biologist, it wouldn’t seem worth the risk; but I know where this little vessel can take me, and the thought of going "there" is irresistible.

This afternoon, many of us went ashore to Puerto Ayora. Had a great tour of the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) and saw my first land and marine iguanas and tortoises. The marine iguanas are especially intriguing. They're very dark and blend in so well with the lava rock that I nearly stepped on one. Some you don't see at all until they move -- or spit salt at you through their nostrils! Very amusing animals -- in an ugly sort of sense. I can’t wait to see them in the water. Sure enough, their tails are compressed, and their feet partially webbed -- both adaptations for swimming. One of the student observers from CDRS who came on board today, Luis, said that ca. 50% of the marine iguana population was killed during this most recent El Nino event -- mostly the very young and very old, which are always the most vulnerable in stressful conditions.

Had a couple beers later in the afternoon with a variety of people from the ship. I learned today that in addition to the ca. 20 film/scientific crew, there are about 12 Harbor Branch crew and five submersible personnel on board. So many names of people to learn and so many people to get to know. A female observer from CDRS came on board today for a few days and will share my room. Paulina is a student studying sea urchins. Lucky for her study animals, she doesn't like uni! Paulina is the first of a few females who will join us on the trip, so I won’t be the sole female the entire time!

Enough for today. Slept very little last night because of the noise of the engine and especially the air conditioning. The ship is kept very cold, something I’m not used to when conducting field work in the tropics. Tonight I have 3 blankets, socks, fleece shirt -- the works!

12 June Darwin Island

Had a good night's sleep as we cruised northward from Baltra to Darwin and Wolf. Arrived here late this morning. The big arch (Darwin's arch) is spectacular, and I understand that right near the arch is where Giddings has found hammerhead sharks and whale sharks before. Worked out for an hour this morning. Rode the stationary bike and did some aerobics to "Lord of the Dance." It's interesting exercising on a rolling ship!

10:30 p.m. -- Got in the water today! Just a drift snorkel with our observers from CDRS but saw lots of fishes: Morays, rainbow runners (Elagatis), other jacks (Caranx sexfasciatus), a grouper (Dermatolepis), black durgeon (Melichthys), king angelfish (Holocanthus passer), etc. Oddly, the morays were out of hiding, swooshing around the rocks and corals. In other places I've dived, you never see morays out except at dawn or dusk when they're out searching for food (or if you’re carrying speared fish and a moray decides that the fish in your bag is the one he wants for dinner -- this happened to me once in Belize -- I promptly gave up my catch -- no questions asked!). The current up here is ripping -- probably 3-5 knots. Al, McCosker, Juan Carlos, & Randy went over to the arch this afternoon and did a drift dive. They saw lots of hammerheads and barracudas, but the current was fierce. Filming here is going to be difficult.

I put my plankton net (for collecting fish larvae) over the side of the SJ tonight. Barely got it back because it was nearly impossible to pull in against the current. Normally you have to tow a plankton net behind a boat, but with currents this strong, merely tossing the net over the side of the anchored ship is more than sufficient. Had lots of help getting the net back in, fortunately, and will use the capstan from now on. Got some nicely colored wrasse larvae, some scombroids, jacks, paralepidids, and some unknowns. Ok, I'm beat. It's great to be here -- Darwin is stunning. Just a huge rectangular slab of volcanic rock jutting up from the water. Thousands of birds flying around. And tonight the endemic Galapagos sea gulls were all around the ship -- apparently this is the only gull that feeds at night. Also tonight, a red-footed booby landed on the ship. Someone picked it up and released it (couldn't manage to take off itself) -- it made quite a fuss over the whole experience but flew off easily when freed.

Scuba Diving in the Galapagos
13 June Darwin

Made two Scuba dives this morning. The first a drift dive at the arch -- saw lots of garden eels, but we weren't in the right place for sharks. Garden eels occur in many tropical areas, including the Galapagos. They dig burrows in sand bottoms and enter the burrow tail first. When threatened, they retreat completely into the burrow. At other times, the head and a good portion of the 1-2 ft. body emerges, but the tail remains in the burrow. The animal picks at food flowing by in the current, and when a large population of garden eels does this together (the animals tend to dig burrows in close proximity to one another), the effect is a garden of dancing eels.

The current during the dive was ripping so strongly that I felt a bit like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz being carried along in a storm. It’s a lot of fun as long as you don’t have to turn around and swim the other way! Made the second dive at the base of Darwin and collected some fishes with McCosker, Jorge (Gomez Jurado -- a student at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco who is along for the beginning of the trip at the request of McCosker), and Michael. I am so impressed with the underwater animals here -- their lack of fear of humans is so odd. Once, I had my head in the sand scooping up a little fish, and I looked up to find myself face-to-face with a huge green moray eel! A perfect (but missed) 3-D moment. The huge mouth of this beast was gaping open and closed displaying a nice set of teeth. I wasn’t quite sure how to react to this, but just slowly backing away seemed to work. Very strange. Also, I actually reached out and touched a jack (Caranx) today. This is unheard of in other places I've dived, where jacks are very skittish around humans, i.e., in places where the fishes have (evolved?) fear of man. I'm sure Charles Darwin would have commented on the friendly, almost inquisitive, nature of the underwater animals here if he'd experienced them. He also wouldn't have thought the Galapagos were such barren islands if he'd donned a mask and taken a swim! The density of fishes in places is extraordinary, and although the diversity is certainly higher in e.g., the tropical Indo-west Pacific, there is a considerable amount here -- all the more amazing considering that the species either arrived here through a long migration or larval dispersal -- or evolved from those that did. Camera tests started today, so we may be ready to roll tomorrow.

I caught some great larval fishes tonight! A lampridiform (Zu?), a lophiiform (goosefish? anglerfish?), a halfbeak, more jacks and wrasses, and some unknowns. Paulina and Luis have been a big help in sorting. I did a little lecture for them this morning on larval fishes -- and their significance in colonizing islands such as the Galapagos and also their significance in my studies of evolutionary relationships of fishes.

14 June Darwin/Wolf 10:30 p.m.

John (the head cook) had a nice Sunday breakfast for us -- bagels with smoked salmon, capers, onions, cream cheese, etc, which I understand will be the norm for Sunday mornings - the ship’s way of keeping track of the day of the week out here on the sea. Pretty boring day for us scientists. Although I did sort through last night's ichthyoplankton sample and found some more neat things. One of the "unknowns" is Coryphaena (dolphin fish) and I also got what I believe are balistids (triggerfish). Worked out for an hour after teaching our observers some more about fish larvae. Getting better on the bike -- can use it for an upper body workout as well as legs. Al et al. took both cameras to the gateway arch to test, and the plan was that I'd go over late afternoon for a drift dive past the cameras. Turned out to be too rough to deploy the 3-D camera. Al shot some footage with the 2-D camera -- garden eels, coral bleaching. But he decided we were wasting our time at Darwin because of the rough conditions. So, around 4 p.m., we pulled anchor and headed to Wolf. Just arrived here but can't find a suitable anchorage spot, so we'll cruise around through the night. Got some pictures tonight of the Galapagos sea gulls (they have red feet and a red eye ring) -- their numbers are amazing. They are attracted to the lights of our ship, presumably because a lot of sea-gull food is attracted to the lights. Our ship sets off a feeding frenzy of sorts, and it is great fun to watch all the action. Having evolved the ability to feed at night would seem to give the Galapagos sea gulls an advantage over other birds, and they have been very successful here. I took some pictures of a red-footed booby that landed on the deck. They land on the ship accidentally and then can't/won't fly away. After I took some shots of it -- the bird has a pretty, light blue beak -- I helped him off the ship into the air. It kept trying to peck me, but I was finally able to get beneath it and give it a lift.

Got an e-mail message from Camille (my twin sister) today. Sounds as though she will come down later in the trip! That will be great. She'll be impressed, I'm sure, with this research vessel and these islands. Also learned today that Peter Guber will come for a few days. I met him once in the IMAX offices at LA. It’s amazing to me that we have e-mail out here! Also have satellite phones, but it’s much more expensive to use them than the computer mail service. When Darwin was here, it would take months or years for him to communicate with colleagues back home; here I am keeping in touch with Camille as well as colleagues at the museum while I’m 600 miles out to sea!

Conditions not much better here for filming. Al et al. spent the day trying to get both camera systems in the water but ended up just shooting more 2-D. Michael, McCosker, Jorge, Knebel, Scott Hopinkson (skipper for the whaler today) and I went over to the edge of Wolf for some diving/snorkeling. My new Oceanics Air XS free flowed, so I had to abort the first dive. Wasn't too happy about it. Grrrrr....! But had a nice snorkel with John Knebel. A sea lion came face to face with me and played there for a while. For lack of better descriptors, they're cute and curious. McCosker let me take his regulator for the 2nd dive, which I did with Michael. A really great dive. Entered into a very clear area (visibility-wise) and dropped down along a ledge where we saw 2 Galapagos sharks and some hammerheads. I only saw a few, but Michael went further down with his camera and saw a whole school. The hammerheads are apparently staying deeper than normal because of increased water temperatures near the surface. I guess Al and Dave were hoping that the effects of El Nino on the water temps. would have abated by now. Anyway, Michael took most of a roll of film on the dive -- he got shots of me with another sea lion that came to check us out, and also with a sea turtle. There were huge schools of Paranthias (Creole bass), yellow-tail surgeonfish, jacks, etc. I saw one "couple" of Caranx sexfaxiatus (jacks) that reminded me of the way Coryphaena (dolphin fish) pairs off. Reminded me of the time when I was fishing off a VIMS (Virginia Institute of Marine Science) research vessel during a research cruise in graduate school. We got into a school of dolphin fish, and I hooked one almost immediately. As I was bringing the fish to the boat, I noticed that it was being closely followed by another dolphin. Turns out that I had hooked one of a male/female pair, and they will stay together even through danger. I was so amazed at this -- and although the others on the boat said that I had to leave the fish in the water and not haul it onto the boat -- because if I did, it would scare all the other members of the school away -- I couldn't do it. I'm not a bleeding heart about taking fish for science or for food, but there was something about the bond between the two implied by the female staying with the male that I'd hooked that just made it difficult to kill either one. I never knew fish could be so "loyal." Anyway, male C. sexfasciatus are dark, and females are light, and they seem to stick together like dolphin fish.

When we got back to the SJ, Al announced that we were leaving again -- to search for calmer waters and to get Dave back to Puerto Ayora to look for another boat to rent. The small "landing craft" -- or CBC as they call it -- just isn't working for deploying the 3-D camera. It's too small for the camera and crew. One option is that the Smithsonian's R/V URRACA will come on the 2nd of July. But Dave and Juan Carlos will see if there are other options closer by. The URRACA would have to sail from Panama.

This afternoon, while the ship’s chef was cleaning chicken and fish on the stern, a huge flock of frigate birds hovered over the ship. They are dark birds with large wingspans, and they reminded me of the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz. Everyone was on the deck of the ship with cameras pointing up to the sky to photograph the birds. Frigates are scavengers, and when they’re not searching for food, males puff up a bright red throat pouch in attempts to attract a female mate.

I sure am excited to be here.


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